United States: No one had to die in Oklahoma

A teacher hugs a child at Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, May 20.

When my eyes caught the words “thoughts are with Oklahoma” on a friend's Facebook status update, my heart skipped a beat. As I hurriedly scanned the first article that I found, I saw the words “devastation” and “Moore”, and my stomach tightened.

I dialed my father's house and got that line-disconnected signal. The tears followed. I was pretty sure that the Moore Medical Center, which the article had described as “destroyed”, was where my father worked.

Reports were coming in that an elementary school had been completely destroyed, with many children dead. And I couldn't remember the name of the school my niece and twin nephews go to.

The day after the storm, the National Weather Service upgraded the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, a suburb of the state capital of Oklahoma City, to a rare F5, the most powerful and deadliest rating. With wind speeds over 200 miles per hour, this 1.3-mile-wide twister churned whole city blocks into rubble.

Cost savings cost lives

Also rare in Moore, apparently, are adequate storm shelters — even in schools. “Most of the schools in Oklahoma don't have one” due to the cost, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN.

For those cost savings, we paid with the lives of nine children.

This is horrendous. It is unconscionable. It is insane. But it is the way a market society prepares for disasters — it doesn't.

We saw after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans that the government had done nothing to prepare for what was later revealed to be an avoidable disaster in many respects. The entities most ready and able to provide material assistance were Home Depot and Wal-Mart, out of the goodness of their credit card swiping machines.

We saw after Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast that makeshift relief organised by Occupy activists did a better job than the established Red Cross, and that the cost for preventative infrastructure would have been a fraction of the cost to rebuild.

But you cannot rebuild dead children. There should have been a shelter inside that school, and there should be a shelter in every school that is at risk for devastating storms like this.

The warning came 15 minutes before the tornado touched down and a half hour before it hit the school. No one had to die.

“Oh, but it will be so expensive!” Do you mean expensive like tax breaks for the rich and corporations?

If a shelter were built in every one of the 1.4 million households in the state of Oklahoma, it would cost about US $9 billion — which, is about as much as Apple avoided paying in taxes last year.

Better yet, we could tax all the money being hidden in overseas tax havens for one year, and with that, we could outfit all 5 million households in Tornado Alley with brand new shelters — several times over.

Is the problem, as some of the media claimed, that everyone has just gotten used to tornadoes? That poor and working people just don't care enough to shell out the $4000 to $10,000 to construct an adequate shelter?

Or is it that we're all just barely getting by while the 1% hoard all the wealth and watch as our lives are literally blown apart?

Rational alternative

Here is how a rational society would prepare for disasters:

* Disaster planning: In most places, we know the potential hazards. We know the best ways to preserve life and limb during a catastrophe.

Tornado Alley would be covered with storm shelters. All buildings in California would be retrofitted for earthquakes. We'd create evacuation systems that actually get people out in time before hurricanes, and people wouldn't be so poor and desperate to work that they choose not to evacuate.

* Material needs: Water, food, rescue equipment, medical supplies, temporary shelter, clothes, etc., would be held in reserve, ready to be deployed where they're needed. Warehouses in and around Tornado Alley would be stocked in advance of tornado season, and resources could be shifted elsewhere when the season is over.

But our current capitalist economy is structured for “just-in-time delivery”, so there's no reserve anywhere--let alone a free, public reserve.

* Critical infrastructure: We all know the power and the Internet are going to go out. We can plan ahead to deploy backup generators, satellite phones and mobile hot spots to make sure power and critical communications come back online while workers come from far and wide to help reconnect power lines.

As of now, local utilities are taxed beyond their limits with the slightest crisis, and we simply don't keep backup systems on hand — it's “too expensive”.

* Volunteer army: A system would be set up in advance to quickly organise a volunteer workforce to be transported to, fed in and housed in crisis spots. From there, they could do the vital work of search and rescue, triage, distribution of vital aid, crisis counseling and cleanup.

Workers could volunteer their time for the relief effort, or take over essential duties in their workplaces so their fellow workers could volunteer or be with their loved ones in a disaster zone.

Since this is a rational society, the workers' basic needs are already being met, so volunteerism would not be limited to those who can afford to help.

* Rebuilding: We would actually rebuild, using the same material reserve and labor system we used to manage the crisis. Disaster victims would have time to adjust before having to return to work, and disaster refugees would have the right to return, neither of which can be said for disaster victims under capitalism — at least for those without money.

I did eventually, by sheer luck, reach my father on his cell. It turns out that all my family was lucky enough to escape unharmed and with little damage to their homes.

But for families less than a mile away in a neighbourhood that was leveled — families who will face unimaginable financial stress — and for the loved ones of the 24 and counting who lost their lives, our rotten system has nothing to offer but the vague possibility of charity, callous victim-blaming and a litany of excuses.

We should have been prepared. The disaster plan above is possible with just the technology we have today, but it requires huge coordination and deliberate central planning.

Our government could physically do these things, but it won't, because it is a government of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%. Spending money on reserve blankets for the unwashed masses or paying time off for volunteers cuts into their bottom line or the defense budget.

We who make the food, the medical supplies and the building materials, we who raise the children and build the storm shelters — we should have control over the economy, so that we can plan for disasters and execute disaster relief, democratically, in the interests of all.

That's how a rational society — a socialist society — would handle an F5 tornado. And no one would have to die.

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]